Your brain’s top priority is always keeping you safe and alive. Therefore, your brain is biologically wired to be jumpy and reactive. It feels safe and like it is doing its job well when you feel that way. That feeling of anxiety has been fundamental to our species survival throughout evolution.
However, today, your brain activates the same neurochemical responses that helped your ancestors survive lethal threats when confronted with minor, ordinary concerns. An unexpected bill sends your heart racing. A critical comment from your partner has you seething. A rude driver has you feeling like you could resort to physical violence.
Because your life isn’t frequently in danger these days, this innate response often leads to anxiety and depression. When you understand how and why your brain responds with fear, you can take steps to lessen its activation to live a calmer more peaceful life. (While a global pandemic does warrant some response, you will benefit from knowing how to turn it down even when it’s valid.)
* In this article, I use the words anxiety and worry interchangeably. Technically, they are two different things.
The Two Mistakes Your Brain Can Make
According to Rick Hanson, in his book, Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, our ancestors could basically make two kinds of mistakes:
1. Believing there is a tiger in the bushes when there’s not.
2. Believing there is no tiger in the bushes when there is.
The cost of the first mistake is anxiety, but you get to live another day. The cost of the second mistake could be death. Consequently, our ancestors’ brains saw the first scenario as a success and stared learning that anxiety usually meant survival. Hence, it was willing to make the first mistake over and over again.
Your brain does this today over what Hanson calls “paper tigers”. As a result, your brain tends to feel like it’s doing something productive to protect you when it is worrying. It has developed the propensity to overestimate threats and see potential danger in neutral situations. Also, most of us have a real knack for underestimating our ability and resources for handling threats when they are real.
The cost of this is needless stress activation which may manifest as a constant background sense of unease — never being able to truly relax or feel happy and at peace. Chronic stress also has damaging consequences for your physical and mental health.
Seeing Threats Clearly
In essence, your brain becomes afraid of not feeling afraid. In reality, most of us are pretty safe in our day-to-day lives. So, you don’t actually need to BE safer. You just need your brain to FEEL safer. You have to intentionally direct your brain to stop inflating threats and undervaluing resources. Hanson suggests that you go through the following exercise about whatever is worrying you:
How big is the actual threat?
Be specific and concrete. He suggests that you “put a fence around it”. Give the threat some boundaries. For example, instead of “My health is falling apart as I age”. You might think “I have moderate arthritis in my right hip.”
How likely is the threat?
Most of the time when we feel anxious, it is about something that might happen in the future. It’s the threat of something you are scared of — not an actual something here and now. Bring your mind back into the present and realistically think about what the odds are.
How bad would it actually be?
OK, suppose, for a minute, the feared event does occur. On a scale of 1 to 10 how bad would it actually be? And for how long? What resources do you have to deal with such an event, inside or outside yourself? Identify your resources. You may be reacting to a learned fear from a similar situation in your past. While it may have been truly horrible then, things may be different now. As an adult, you may have changed, and you may have more resources available to you.
Support and reassure yourself.
As you reflect on your resources, talk to yourself so that you achieve a feeling of enoughness, calm, and relief. This does not mean that you convince yourself that everything will turn out exactly the way you want it to. It means that you build a sense of confidence and trust in your ability to handle whatever does happen. I have found one question that always helps me in this process.
Calming Your Anxious Brain
It’s important not to completely dismiss and overlook your fears. They can be valid information that warrants further exploration. Reasonable concerns are in your best interest and can keep you from potentially dangerous situations. However, being consumed and paralyzed by fear is actually the opposite. The wear and tear anxiety puts on your mind and body undermines your health and safety. The goal is to manage and process your fear in a way that is good for you.
Hanson offers the following ways to do that:
Calm your breathing
Because your breath directly controls your nervous system, it’s the remote control to instantly calm your brain and body. Learning to control and calm your breathing has many physical, mental, and life benefits – both instantly and in the long run. You can find calming breathing techniques here.
Hanson explains that when you extend your exhalation, it calms your nervous system. Your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) manages exhaling and slows your heart rate. Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) controls inhaling and speeds up your heart. If you lengthen your exhalation, it engages your PNS. For example, inhale for four counts and exhale for six.
Here Hanson suggests that you pick a specific area of your body, bring awareness to that area, and deliberately relax it. You can use a guided progressive relaxation exercise at first and then go it on your own on-the-spot as needed.
You know that your brain controls your body, but did you know that your body also controls your brain? It’s a feedback loop that works both ways. The activity in your brain changes every second based on what your body is doing. This process is called biofeedback.
You may have thought that biofeedback required equipment, like a finger heart rate monitor or software. While technology can make measuring bodily changes easier, it’s not necessary. You can alter your brain’s function with conscious biofeedback simply by paying attention. For example, as suggested above, slowing your breathing or relaxing specific muscles can directly impact your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and stress levels.
Move your body
Moving your body calms your brain, releases anxiety, and lowers stress. Exercise helps your brain keep cortisol in check, repair itself, and prevent the damaging effects of stress. Moving your body could be a structured exercise like lifting weights or yoga, or it could be as simple as walking, dancing, or gardening.
Use visual imagery
Most anxiety originates with your thoughts and internal dialogue. What happens in your mind has real physiological consequences for your body. Your brain sends the same messages to your central nervous system whether something is being imagined or experienced. This works to your disadvantage with anxiety and worry. However, you can also intentionally use visualization to calm your brain and body. You can help yourself by visualizing calming, peaceful, and reassuring scenes.
Hanson points out that the neural basis for language and imagery are typically located on different sides of the brain. (In right-handed people language is on the left with imagery being on the right. This is reversed in lefties.) The two activities inhibit each other meaning if one becomes more active the other quiets down. So, if you focus on visual imagery, the mind chatter calms down and anxiety decreases with it.
Most of the time, there is no need for much fear in your everyday life. Most of the threats you imagine are not very likely. The consequences won’t be that bad even if they do happen, and you are better equipped to handle them than you give yourself credit for. Hanson writes:
It’s like walking around believing the world is at Threat Level Orange when in fact it’s more like Threat Level Chartreuse: a bucket of green paint with a drop of yellow. If you’re about to fall off of a cliff — or the equivalent — sure, be afraid. But otherwise, repeatedly help yourself feel as reasonably safe as you can as you move throughout your day.”